Still in the Future | A conversation with James and Paul
September 9, 2021 by Traci Turner
When I graduated from my SoCal high school (just a few short years ago), the most exciting moment was Grad Night at Disneyland. Not only because Disneyland is an important part of my childhood, but one of my absolute favorite bands was playing: Information Society. I wore out my “Information Society” cassette playing “Walking Away,” “Lay All Your Love on Me,” “Repetition,” ”Tomorrow,” and “Running” over and over and over, so I was excited to see them in person.
While I no longer have the body or optimism of a new high school graduate, I am ecstatic to tell you there is new music from Information Society (INSOC) that teases the nostalgic side, but remains future sounding. Founding members James Cassidy and Paul Robb were kind enough to Zoom chat with me about the new album, “ODDfellows,” and the technology involved in making the first album in THX Spatial Audio. We also covered boats, birds, and Mr. Toad, as all good interviews do!
Back when Robb and Cassidy were in high school themselves, they met Kurt Harland. The Minneapolis boys moved onto college and in 1982, they entered the music world as Information Society. After self-releasing some albums, they scored a massive hit on their very first major label record. “What’s On Your Mind (Pure Energy)” became a huge dance track in 1988 and spent 39 weeks on the charts.
Their self-titled debut album spawned several great songs (as I mentioned above!), and the group was off and running. Their popularity increased even more after an appearance on the “Earth Girls Are Easy” soundtrack and the Club MTV Tour with other ‘late ’80s/early ‘90s faves Paula Abdul, Milli Vanilli, Tone Loc, Was (Not Was) and Lisa Lisa. They followed “Information Society” up with “Hack” and then “Peace and Love, Inc.” which gave some more dance faves, “Peace & Love Inc.” and “Going, Going, Gone.”
There have been line-up changes over the years, but the three founding members remain (Paul Robb on keyboards, percussion, James Cassidy on bass, and Kurt Harland on vocals), joined by Zeke Prebluda (aka Falcotronik).
Through the decades, they have continued to explore technology and the future of music, plus doing things like earning a Master’s in science (Cassidy) and writing music for TV and film (Robb). They started working on “ODDfellows” four years ago, and it is finally here for our consumption. Dance, synth, Europop, retro, futuristic; “ODDfellows” ticks so many boxes while bridging “old” INSOC sound with everything new that makes it fresh, not recycled.
(James arrives first on Zoom)
Traci: Hey James! How are you?
James: Good! Have we met before?
Traci: Sort of. You played one of the most important nights of my life… Grad Night at Disneyland! (laughing)
James: We came up out of the ground in Tomorrowland! Oh, my God! (laughing) I think we had a whole week we were there or something. I think it was between the two weeks we did one at Disneyland one Disney World. I got to meet Paul Stanley in Disney World, and I’m a big KISS fan. I think we had to do three shows a day and they would just move them in and move them out. I mean, it was like thousands of young people there. It was crazy. I remember they had sort of a dress code, and I thought that was just not very rock and roll.
Traci: During the day, did you get to go to the park?
James: Yeah. I remember we were very obsessed with Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and we probably went on at 50 times because in the end, you die and you go to hell. (laughing)
(Suddenly, Paul appears.)
Paul: I’m here!
James: Well, great. So that wraps it up!
Traci: Thank you for all the inside info!
James: I’ll never have to say any of that again.
Traci: I can’t believe you shared that picture of Paul!
Paul: I told you not to share that picture! (laughing)
Traci: I was just telling James that you guys played my Grad Night at Disneyland.
Paul: It’s amazing how many people we hear that from! We made a lot of fans that year. It was terrible for us. (laughing)
James: It was all about us at that time, as far as we were concerned. The grad night was a big thing. We were just like a sidebar.
Paul: We were like clam dip that night. (laughing) Well, Jim Cassidy, did you tell her about Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride? (side note: Paul calls James “Jim Cassidy” each time and I love it.)
James: I did! We had that conversation! You get run over by a train in the end and you die and you go to hell. (laughing)
Paul: You go to hell!
James: Dozens of times a night. “We’re going to go again. Run it through again.”
Paul: We were very silly people.
James: We were very bored. I mean that is the thing about music business. It is a hell of a lot of waiting around. Especially touring, you’re mostly just waiting around. You can’t really go and do anything because you never know. “Oh, they’re ready to do the sound check now” or “Oh there’s this interview you got to do.” So you always have to be on call, but there’s nowhere to be. So you’re just in some shitty office waiting around. But we loved it! (laughing)
Traci: If you have an off day on tour, is there anything that you like to do?
James: We don’t really have off days, but I always hang with Paul and we try and find “the people.” Wherever that is. You go find the pepper of the people in Manaus, Brazil, or something, and get nearly killed in the pursuit of it.
Paul: If you’re lucky.
Traci: Paul, what did you do while you were locked in at home last year? Anything like hobbies that you didn’t have time for before?
Paul: Luckily, I’m able to do my work from home, so that makes me a member of the fortunate minority. But not really, other than the fact that I moved residences in 2020. For people like myself who are introverts, the whole pandemic thing has been kind of fantastic because I never wanted to see anybody to begin with. (laughing) It actually worked out quite well. It hasn’t really been any change, I don’t go out anyway. We’ve had some offers to do dates and things, and even in this round of interviews, for the new record, people ask, “Are you going to go out on the road this fall?” We didn’t really know what to say necessarily because we didn’t have any plans to go tour this fall. But now it’s obvious nobody can tour this fall. I’m glad that we didn’t spin our wheels and make plans to do something because it wouldn’t have worked anyway. But my heart goes out to young people who just graduated into of this environment because they don’t know what normal life is and that’s a big problem. I don’t know when things will return to normal and what is normal is a good question for kids at that age.
Traci: There was a tease of being normal life!
Paul: “Okay, it’s going to go back to normal,” and then “no, sorry.”
James: And returning to what was not really working in a number of ways, either. Honestly, excessively burning down the candle. Anyway! Just trying to lighten the mood a little.
Paul: We are a breath of fresh air!
Traci: James, did you do anything in particular while you were home?
James: I’m a university professor and I run a student farm, and so I didn’t go anywhere this year. I was able to focus on the farm and in some ways, it made my job a little easier because I didn’t have to say, “Well, I’m taking two weeks off to do this thing” or all the things that we used to do. Staying home has actually taken some of the stress out of my life. I was able to focus on the things that I do without adding all the bells and whistles. Though I did buy an old boat that I’m working on.
Traci: I’ve heard that you can become a millionaire with a boat… if you start as a billionaire.
Paul: It’s much like the wine business. How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a large fortune.
Traci: What’s your boat’s name?
James: I have two of them. The new one is called the Eggy June, and then I have another boat that is sailable at present that’s called The Grebe, which is a bird. Interestingly – I know this is a really important part of the interview – the lake that I sail it on is one of two places in the Western United States where grebes breed. Because the other one was down in Southern Oregon where there’s almost no water, all of them are breeding on this little lake this year. They run on the water together and they have all these rituals, and they go down together, and they pick up a weed. They do a weed ceremony and they cannot walk on land. They can only be on the water. I’m sure our audience is very interested in this.
Traci: I know what I’m doing for my next anniversary. We’re having a weed ceremony!
James: You can have weed ceremonies as often as possible!
Traci: Did you have “ODDfellows” in progress or did it come from lockdown time?
Paul: “ODDfellows” has been at least four years in the making. It’s been finished for the last year. So in that sense, it was very similar to our very first album where we finished it, and then for various reasons, waited around for over a year before it came out. It was the same with this one. We were going to put it out last summer, and then this all happened, and we had plans. We were going to do a whole big a sort of farewell tour. You remember that, Jim Cassidy? My idea was let’s do a legit club tour. We’re going to do rock and roll clubs. We’re going to go back to all those rooms, all those American cities that we used to play back in the day. We’re going to go to Cincinnati, we’re going to do Cleveland, and play those rock clubs…
James: And not necessarily make a huge amount of money, just go out and do it and say, “sayonara.”
Paul: That was the idea. Sadly, we never had an opportunity to make that happen. So we waited around for over a year to put the record out. We just decided it’s done, so let’s do it. We’re not getting any younger!
Traci: I saw that it is the first album in THX Spatial Audio. What is that?
Paul: THX, as you know they’re a legacy technology company with their roots in George Lucas and the Star Wars empire. They have a history of forward-looking audio. It’s like THX and Dolby and DTS and Sony, and these were all the companies that were doing the audio systems for cinema for movie theaters. As time went on, all of them in different ways got into doing surround sound for more streaming and headphones and the kind of thing that we use to watch movies and listen to music or gaming. So a lot of these companies are getting into “spatial audio,” which is different from surround sound in the sense that it’s not a five-channel or a seven-channel audio system. Remember back in the ‘00s, you’d have nerds who would set up their surround sound theater at home, and they have five speakers and a subwoofer and everything. This is distinct from that in the sense that it’s delivered to you as a stereo file. It’s no different from any other audio file that you can get from iTunes or Amazon or whatever. But when you encode it in the right way, and you listen to it on headphones, it gives you a slightly more spacious, “spatial” experience with music. Our manager is actually a top executive at THX, so when he presented us with this idea, we were excited to do it because it’s a new way to listen to music. I’m old enough to remember Quad. Jim Cassidy do you remember Quad?
James: Four separate channels and that kind of moving around.
Paul: So this is the next generation’s version of Quad. I really don’t know that it’s going to change anybody’s experience of music in a fundamental way, or it’s going to change anyone’s life. But it is a slightly different experience, and it’s kind of cool.
Traci: After listening to “ODDfellows” with the spatial audio, it made me wonder why would anybody go back.
James: It does require that you have high-quality headphones. It’s not really an ear bud experience. Most people don’t really listen to music anyway. They just have it on or they have their ear buds on while they’re doing other stuff. So it requires kind of old-fashioned listening.
Traci: I like the full-on, over-ear, hear nothing else headphones when I’m listening to a new album.
James: And do nothing else. Actually take the moment to listen.
Paul: Jim Cassidy do you remember “For Headphones Only?”
James: Of course!
Paul: Back in the day, the only way to hear alternative music – they wouldn’t have called it that – but it was really late at night on the rock and roll stations. They had this show at like, 11 p.m. on Saturday nights called “For Headphones Only,” and they played a lot of prog rock and new wave.
James: “Dark Side of the Moon.” But it was definitely for stoners.
Paul: But I listened to it, and I wasn’t a stoner! I went to the laser shows where they played Moody Blues and Pink Floyd and stuff. So this is like that. It’s a more immersive experience, if you want it. And we give it to people free. If they go buy the album in a digital form, they get a code to download the spatial mixes for free. And maybe, let’s say 10% of the people are going to be interested in it. But for those 10%, it’s been a big success. People kind of like it.
James: Having the opportunity to do a technological sort of thing is something that’s happened in our previous recordings. Our first recording was the first ever CD+G, which is a graphics kind of thing. Then Kurt… was there some sort of thing on his record?
Paul: Oh, yeah. There was a search. It was in the early days of the internet, and there was a track on the album that was data. You would decode it with your modem, and then it was like a scavenger hunt, but it was on the internet. One of the last bonus tracks on our CD release of this album is very similar to that. It’s really cool because – I don’t want to give it away – but utilizes ham radio technology. It’s a similar technology to the way they sent the original photos back from the Apollo mission from the moon. It’s a very low res technology, but I had never heard of it before Kurt presented it to us. It’s very cool and so far I think three people have cracked the code. There’s a website that we put together that has a bunch of goodies for the people who are able to crack the code. And three or four people have done it so far.
Traci: You guys have always been involved with technology in your music. Isn’t it amazing how much technology has changed since you guys started?
James: We could go on and on about that! Our early days!
Paul: I’ve thought about this a lot. Our initial conception of the band, and we didn’t come up with this out of whole cloth, this was influenced by people like Gary Numan or whatever. We wanted to be science fiction pop music. David Bowie, Gary Numan, Human League, all those acts. We wanted to be the William Gibson of popular music. If you go back to that Cyberpunk literature back in the ‘80s, it’s so quaint now and it’s so cute, it’s so charming. The sad part is that it used to seem so exciting, all this technology. We should have known, we didn’t know because we were young people, and young people are excitable about the future. But it turned out to be so incredibly boring. What all this high tech being used for. We all love cat pictures, everybody loves cat videos, but there’s no cyber space, and nothing is exciting. It’s just people talking about how dumb they are and vaccine denial and cat videos and…
Traci: You said earlier something about a farewell tour, and I know it’s not planned because everything’s up in the air, but is that really what you think you’re going to do next time? A farewell?
James: We were in Brazil, I think, two and a half years ago, and we did our 30th anniversary tour of the first record, where we played the whole record straight through in order, and then played a bunch of new tunes afterwards or other tunes that people know. And so you’ve got to have some sort of theme, and Paul said “farewell tour” and I thought that sounded okay. If it was going to get him out on the road, that’s fine for me, because really one of the reasons that Paul and I like to go on road is because it’s the only chance to hang out. I mean, Kurt, Paul and I went to high school together, so we’ve been a band on and off for 38 or 39 years. So maybe a 40th anniversary tour.
Paul: Well, it’s funny. I mean, speaking of William Gibson, I don’t know if Jim Cassidy even knows this or not. Our master recordings, all our rights, have now fallen into the hands of a new venture capital funded entity called Reservoir Recordings, and they’re hot to trot about it. “Well, what can we do? Let’s have some exciting ideas.” And who knows what can happen? I’m curious. It is not written in stone, although I will just say I don’t like to see pictures of myself on stage anymore because I have jowls. (laughing)
James: I was going to ask you, it seems like your jowls have gone away. Have you got some work then? You’ve lost weight for sure, haven’t you?
Paul: I am a country gentleman now. I work outside a lot more than I used to, that’s part of it. I’m ruddier. I’m healthier.
James: He lives in rural New Hampshire now with a pond and the splitting wood. I live in a very small college town in Oregon, and farm. So you know, exactly what we expected 38 years ago, where we might end up.
Paul: Yeah, exactly. (laughing)
James: Well, it’s more interesting than what we thought would happen.
Paul: The future is now, science fiction is happening right now.
James: We truly live in misinformation society, but we also truly live in a sci-fi novel now. I mean, the whole disinformation campaigns that are going on are truly freakish.
Paul: And climate change and all the flooding of the Northeast. Now, Traci, sorry, we should have warned you about this. When you do an interview with Cass and myself together, it just ends up kind of being like more of a conversation.
Traci: That’s much more fun than all business!
Paul: I will say we’ve had fantastic reviews of this album, and it’s very gratifying because I thought this album was very good. I thought these songs were very mature and still a little bit relevant to the pop music scene, and it’s very gratifying to have that be born out in a lot of the reviews of the record that we had, and that’s been fabulous because I think it’s a great record.
Traci: Yeah, I like it. (Highlights for me: “World Enough,” “Room 1904,” “Down in Flames,” and “The Mymble’s Daughter”)
Paul: I like it. It’s got a good beat. You can dance to it.
James: I like it too!
Paul: I give it nine out of ten!
Traci: It sounds like you, but it sounds like you now, but it sounds like a little bit of the memory of you. It’s got that good blend of nostalgia and new.
Paul: Thank you for noticing that, because that was exactly the intention. There’s nothing worse than a band trying to be current when they really are not current and they should not try to be current. We have our own thing and we do our thing and plenty of people like that. We have our thing and it’s fantastic. You know who has really done that in a fantastic way is Gary Numan. Can you believe that man is still around? And he’s happy as a clam and he goes to Disneyland with his family and posts pictures. Who expected Gary Numan to be the most well-adjusted star 40 years later. “Here I am with my two little kids and my wife. I’m in Florida. I live here now.” But some people are able to do that and some people aren’t. We were able to do that by virtue of going away from the project repeatedly and coming back at intervals. And that’s worked for us.
Traci: You have a vinyl version coming out too, right?
James: Yes, there’s vinyl in November sometime, but it’s for sale currently. You can pre-order, and of course, the CD is out. For fans who are interested in what’s best for the band, Bandcamp is probably the best way to go.
Paul: We were approached by this label Negative Gains. We weren’t planning on putting out physical product at all this time. It’s funny because it’s a futuristic aesthetic associated with the band, and yet we’re kind of retro in our marketing and things like that. And it turns out a lot of our fans are older people – I know that’s probably not a shock – and like myself, they want to have physical things, they want own this record. They don’t want to just listen to it on Spotify. So we ended up putting out the CD oddly enough, because of the boom in vinyl, but it takes a lot longer to get out. But Bandcamp is the best way for bands. Let’s go, Jim Cassidy. We can’t keep this poor woman on the line. I know she’s got a life.
Traci: Not really. I mean, I have to go to a concert tomorrow night…
Paul: I was supposed to see The Residents on Tuesday and they had to cancel.
James: Tomorrow, I was going to go to Moab, Utah. It was an arts festival where George Takei was doing his forgotten memories with Kenji Bunch, who is a composer friend of mine who is doing all the music for it. I was going to fly out there at one point, and then I said, “Well, no, I’m not going to fly. Maybe I’ll drive out.” Then I said no, I’m not going to go anywhere. So I actually have the weekend free so now I’m going to go sailing.
Paul: Excellent. You and Christopher Cross.
James: Christopher Cross. Seals & Cross radio. Pandora…
We could have carried on longer, but I guess it had to end sometime. Thank you so much to Paul Robb and James (Jim) Cassidy of Information Society. Grab “ODDfellows” now and put on your best headphones for the experience of THX Spatial Audio.